The Applegate Valley Offers Oregon Winemakers a Quiet Place to Experiment
GRANTS PASS, Ore. — The Applegate Valley in southern Oregon has a lot of things going for it as a region for making terrific wines. Panoramic natural beauty, however, is not one of them.
Unlike the Columbia River Gorge, an Oregon region with the potential for excellent wine and far more breathtaking scenery in every direction, the Applegate’s compelling attributes are mostly quiet and often unseen.
Situated in the extreme southwestern end of Oregon, the valley follows the winding course of the Applegate River as it flows northward from just the other side of the California border to empty into the Rogue River. The Applegate Valley American Viticultural Area, or A.V.A., is a subregion in the larger, warmer Rogue Valley A.V.A.
Despite charming pockets of green and pretty country roads, the area can often seem rather flat and plain, though the Siskiyou Mountains rise gently to the west. Nonetheless, belying the often repeated notion that great wine regions must have great views, the Applegate Valley is home to some compelling wines.
The region’s elevation, 1,000 to 2,000 feet above sea level, allows for dramatic temperature shifts between warm, dry days and cool nights, permitting a long, balanced ripening season. The gravelly, loamy, often granitic soils drain well, and are a welcoming terrain for the wide variety of grapes that are grown there.
The Willamette Valley to the north dominates most people’s perception of the Oregon wine industry with its exceptional pinot noirs and chardonnays.
But quietly, other Oregon regions like the Applegate Valley and the Columbia Gorge are beginning to carve out their own identities as producers of strikingly good wines.
Willamette winemakers are among the Applegate Valley’s biggest fans. Several Willamette producers like Day Wines and Division Wine Company supplement their portfolios by buying grapes from the Applegate Valley. But a few excellent Applegate producers are making their own wines as well.
Most Applegate Valley wines are sold locally, to residents or tourists who take day trips from nearby Ashland and Jacksonville, which draw crowds for annual Shakespeare and music festivals.
Some producers choose not to distribute widely, like Joe Ginet of Plaisance Ranch, who makes many different wines, including excellent malbec, carmenère and mondeuse (a red grape from the Savoie region of France that was supplied to Mr. Ginet by relatives there), though he will ship directly to customers in most states.
Others, like Herb Quady of Quady North, who makes fine Rhône-style wines, are seeking wider distribution for their wines. Many small vineyard owners, who grow “things other than pinot noir,” as Mr. Quady put it, sell their grapes to producers in other parts of the state.
But I had not tasted Plaisance or Quady North until recently. Aside from the excellent Applegate wines I’ve had from Willamette producers, the wines of one producer, Troon Vineyard, made such an impression on me over the last few years that I drove seven hours from the Mendocino Coast in July to pay a visit to Applegate Valley.
Troon, outside of Grants Pass, is not exactly new. It was founded in 1972 by Dick Troon, a farmer who planted cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. But the modern history of Troon began when the farm was purchased in 2016 by Denise and Bryan White, Texans who were looking for a place in Oregon. They in turn hired Craig Camp, a wine industry veteran, as general manager.
Mr. Camp first moved to convert the vineyards — the cabernet and zin had long since been pulled out — to biodynamic and regenerative farming, while making the estate more biodiverse. They planted apple trees and a vegetable garden, and added chickens and sheep for grazing in the vineyard and rewilded honeybees, a program of creating hives as bees would in the wild rather than for cultivating honey.
Both biodynamics and regenerative farming put a premium on building and maintaining soil health while creating a thriving and diverse environment. Theoretically, at least, the farm becomes a self-regulating ecosystem in which grapevines have all they need without additions like fertilizers or herbicides to compensate for what has been lost or taken away.
In practice, it’s not always that neat. But Mr. Camp can point to many triumphs, like a diseased block of vermentino that he says has done well after the conversion to biodynamics.
Mr. Camp now considers himself an advocate of practical biodynamic farming. He was once a skeptic, he said, but became convinced only through tasting wines that impressed him and learning afterward that they had been made of biodynamically farmed grapes. The improvements he’s seen in the microbial life of the soil at Troon have further persuaded him.
Troon recently received Regenerative Organic Certification, which, in addition to farming organically, requires it to demonstrate improvements in soil health and water management and to meet standards in managing employees and in caring for animals.
Mr. Camp and his team are overhauling the Troon infrastructure and replanting the vineyards, primarily with varieties from the Rhône Valley, like syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, roussanne and marsanne; the southwest of France, like tannat, negrette and rolle (also known as vermentino); along with some from Italy and Spain.
In all, Troon has 45 planted acres with 20 varieties, some of which have been added simply to determine which grapes will make the best wines.
“We need to experiment,” said Nate Wall, Troon’s winemaker. “We’re a young A.V.A.”
Mr. Camp says the obscurity of some of the grapes plays in Troon’s favor.
“I find trying to sell wines like negrette easier than pinot noir,” he said. “We’re connecting with people, who say: ‘Negrette? Oh, I want to try that.’ ”
While I admire the way Troon farms and its empirical attitude, the proof is in the wines, which are invariably fresh, lively and expressive. A 2020 vermentino is pure and energetic, full of citrus and herbal flavors yet refreshing and intriguing.
A 2019 Côtes du Kubli (named for the Kubli Bench, the geographical feature on which Troon sits), mostly syrah with 16 percent grenache, is tangy, dry and lip-smacking. A 2019 tannat is lovely, with floral and plum flavors.
Troon is fermenting some wines in amphora, and is making orange wines, petillant-naturels and piquettes, all trendy expressions that, in Troon’s hands, demonstrate why people were attracted to the styles in the first place.
The growing consumer interest in piquette particularly has been surprising. Historically, piquette was made by adding water to pomace — the skins, seeds and stems remaining after grapes were pressed — and then re-fermenting the mixture, resulting in a thin, fizzy, low-alcohol beverage that was given to vineyard workers.
In its modern incarnation, it has developed a following.
“We made piquette for the first time in 2019,” Mr. Camp said. “I thought it was for geeks, but it flew out the door.”
Troon has also been forward thinking, planting late-ripening grapes, like mourvèdre, that may not be ideal now but will be useful as the climate changes.
“We plant on the belief that the climate will continue to warm up,” Mr. Camp said. “It’s a year-by-year process, if it doesn’t ripen enough it will make a great rosé or even a pet-nat.”
While wine has been made in the Applegate Valley since the 1850s, the industry died with Prohibition, not starting up again until the 1970s. Until far more recently, it was not considered financially feasible.
Mr. Quady has hedged his bets since founding Quady North in 2006. He also sells grapes; he owns a company, Applegate Vineyard Management, that handles the farming at a number of small vineyards; and he runs a custom-crush operation, Barrel 42, where clients can use equipment and the facility to make wine.
But he’s also just built a big new winery that will combine Quady North and Barrel 42 in one building, and he’s working on expanding distribution of his Quady North wines. The biggest issues now, he says, are the threat of wildfires and managing water resources.
Mr. Ginet of Plaisance, whose family has been farming in the Applegate for more than a century, wanted to plant a vineyard in the 1970s.
“Banks wouldn’t lend me the money,” he said. “But they would if I milked cows.”
So Mr. Ginet ran a dairy farm for 30 years until he finally persuaded a bank that a vineyard would work. He was able to become a commercial winery in 2006, selling the dairy cows and supplementing wine with an organic beef business. He said he has always farmed organically and regeneratively.
“All I need is water and manure,” he said. “It’s so much easier to farm when you have healthy soil.”
Follow NYT Food on Twitter and NYT Cooking on Instagram, Facebook, YouTube and Pinterest. Get regular updates from NYT Cooking, with recipe suggestions, cooking tips and shopping advice.